The Remedy for Creative Block and Existential Stuckness
To create anything — a poem, a painting, a theorem, a garden — is not to will something new into being but to surrender to the most ancient and alive part of ourselves — the stratum of spirit vibrating with every experience we have ever had, every book we have ever read, every love we have ever loved, every dream we have ever dreamt. It is a process that requires great strength and great patience, for it asks of us to quiet the din of demand and break free from the straitjacket of habit in order to make audible the inner voice whispered from the depths of life, wild and free. “The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote as she contemplated creativity, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
How to live into our creative power is what improvisational violinist and computer artist Stephen Nachmanovitch explores in his classic Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (public library), published the year I was born.
Writing in the spirit of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, Nachmanovitch considers a common stage of the creative process — what the polymathic mathematician Henri Poincaré called “sudden illumination” and the physicist Freeman Dyson called “a flash of illumination” — and offers an essential guardrail against the mythos of such Eureka! moments:
The literature on creativity is full of tales of breakthrough experiences. These moments come when you let go of some impediment or fear, and boom — in whooshes the muse. You feel clarity, power, freedom, as something unforeseeable jumps out of you. The literature of Zen… abounds with accounts of kensho and satori — moments of illumination and moments of total change of heart. There come points in your life when you simply kick the door open. But there is no ultimate breakthrough; what we find in the development of a creative life is an open-ended series of provisional breakthroughs. In this journey there is no endpoint, because it is the journey into the soul.
Our subject is inherently a mystery. It cannot be fully expressed in words, because it concerns the deep preverbal levels of spirit. No kind of linear organization can do justice to this subject; by its nature it does not lie flat on the page. Looking at the creative process is like looking into a crystal: No matter which facet we gaze into, we see all the others reflected.
Echoing Emerson’s admonition against the cult of originality — an admonition Nick Cave would amplify two centuries later — Nachmanovitch examines the prerequisites of creation — “playfulness, love, concentration, practice, skill, using the power of limits, using the power of mistakes, risk, surrender, patience, courage, and trust” — and adds:
The creative process is a spiritual path. This adventure is about us, about the deep self, the composer in all of us, about originality, meaning not that which is all new, but that which is fully and originally ourselves.
But there come moments in life when some monolith of agony or apathy lodges itself in the middle of the spiritual path, leaving us too painfully cut off from ourselves to create. We may call this creative block, we may experience it as depression, but no matter the conceptual container, the ineffable stuff inside pulsates with aching unease. In such moments, there is no way out we can claw our way to — there is only the soft allowing of the passage through. Echoing Henry Miller’s insistence on the value of surrender as an antidote to despair, Nachmanovitch writes:
Faithfulness to the moment and to the present circumstance entails continuous surrender. Perhaps we are surrendering to something delightful, but we still have to give up our expectations and a certain degree of control — give up being safely wrapped in our own story. We still engage in the important practice of planning and scheduling — not to rigidly lock in the future, but to tune up the self. In planning we focus attention on the field we are about to enter, then release the plan and discover the reality of time’s flow. Thus we tap into living synchronicity.
Only unconditional surrender leads to real emptiness, and from that place of emptiness I can be prolific and free. We create and respond from the wonderful empty place that is generated when we surrender.
With an eye to intelleto — Michelangelo’s notion of visionary intelligence beyond rational thought, capable of seeing beyond the veneer of appearances — and temenos — the magic circle of ancient Greece, demarcating a sacred space for play that summons the extraordinary — Nachmanovitch offers concrete strategies for active surrender:
When you are stuck, meditate, free associate, do automatic writing, talk to yourself and answer yourself. Play with the blocks. Stay in the temenos of the workplace. Relax, surrender to the bafflement; don’t leave the temenos, and the solution will come. Persevere gently. Use intelleto, the visionary faculty. Stay close to the zero mark; indulge neither in great highs nor in great lows. The depths are obscured in us when we try to force feelings; we clarify them by giving them adequate time and space and letting them come.
In a sentiment embodied in Pablo Neruda’s lovely childhood memory of the hand through the fence, Nachmanovitch considers the ultimate impetus of why we are called to create at all:
Beyond the drive to create is yet a deeper level of commitment, a state of union with a whole that is beyond us. When this element of union is injected into our play-forms, we get something beyond mere creativity, beyond mere purpose or dedication; we get a state of acting from love. Love has to do with the perpetuation of life, and is therefore irrevocably linked to deeply held values.
Complement these fragments of the altogether vitalizing Free Play with poet Diane Ackerman’s soulful inquiry into the spiritual and creative rewards of deep play and violinist Natalie Hodges on improvisation and the quantum of consciousness, then revisit some life-tested advice on getting unstuck from working artists, working writers, and Lewis Carroll.